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I wasn’t so sure that I’d be writing this column this week. If things didn’t go as hoped against Miami, writing about the draft might have been what I was doing. Much has changed in a week, as now even Vegas and the gambling public are believers in Dallas, with the Boys even favored by a point in some of the spreads I’ve seen. It won’t be easy against the NFC’s best and only undefeated team.
The Panthers probably don’t get enough credit and most of that is because of the style of football they play. They have an Old-school offense that is run first, and looks much more like an offense from 15-20 years ago. Regardless of style, the Panthers have the 3rd highest scoring offense in the NFL at an average of 29.9 points per game. Their commitment to the run has led to the 4th best running offense in the league with an average of 139.9 yards per game. A commitment to the run and a scheme that allows for lots of heavy sets (2 TE, 1 TE and a FB or 2 FB’s) that are best suited for running the ball are a big part of the Panthers offensive success. The other big factor is of course Cam Newton who’s played at an MVP level this season.
Newton has developed into a true QB this season. He’s shown much improved decision making, rarely making mistakes or committing costly errors that lead to turnovers. His accuracy and especially his ball placement has been superb for most of the year. He’s not forcing throws and he’s shown great poise in the pocket. Also it needs to be noted that Cam doesn’t have a very talented group of receivers and is often having to throw in tight windows, and has done a great job at this. The Panthers are 28th in the League in passing, so it isn’t a strength of the team, but Cam’s ability to move the chains and make positive plays for the offense when needed has been crucial.
Greg Olsen is the main threat at TE for the passing attack, Olsen is supremely talented. Incredibly hard to cover because of his size and athletic gifts, he’s shown great hands this year and has been a huge target especially in the red zone. Devin Funchess and Tedd Ginn Jr. are the two biggest weapons on the outside, and the young Funchess has shown steady improvement the last month and is starting to become more of a factor especially on contested sideline catches where he can dominate.
This offense all revolves around Cam as a running QB and how there’s no one else in the league like him. He’s huge and can absorb and break tackles, that added element forces defenses to be on their toes at all times. Jonathan Stewart has also had a big impact as a runner this season. The Offense plays into a weak (on paper) OLine’s strength and rushes the ball. You can see that Carolina’s OT’s aren’t the most mobile and will give up pressure to the outside (especially in the rare 3rd and long situation), but due to how this offense operates, and their QB, this weakness hasn’t been exploited.
One of the better defenses in the league, and they have the stats to prove it. Top 10 against both pass and run, top 5 in points allowed and 7th in total yards allowed. No matter how you look at it the Panthers defense is good, and there aren’t many weaknesses !
On paper the pass-rush might seem like one of the few weak spots on this team, and is the main reason they added Jarred Allen during the trade deadline. Yet they’re 3rd in the NFL in Sacks with 31 on the year. They bring pressure in a team way and don’t have one dominant rusher. Kawaan Short and Kony Ealy have really emerged as great DLineman. Then there’s Star Lotulelei, who hasn’t been completely healthy all year, but is a beast. His presence in the middle of the Defense frees up space for everyone else.
Mainly, Luke Kuechly and Todd Davis are the heart and soul of this Defense. Both are great in coverage and spectacular in covering the entire field, and are sure tacklers who can make plays. The middle of the field gets locked down with those two in coverage.
The secondary play lots of Zone coverage and Josh Norman has been a ball hawk all season. While not used in 1 on 1 coverage as often as most of the NFL’s top CB’s Norman has shown outstanding awareness and ability to make plays on the ball. His instincts and eyes are on point right now, and he’s probably the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year.
Running the Ball vs Carolina’s D
This is not an easy team to run against. They have one of the best run stopping NT’s around, two of the best tackling LB’s and a line that is big and plays nasty. Running the ball isn’t easy against this group, but it’s necessary to keep this defense at bay and play a well balanced attack.
Stopping the Panthers run and stopping the QB runs
This is the real key to the game. The Panthers won’t abandon the run like most teams would if they’re down early. Stopping the run is a key to beating them. It’s not easy with Cam back there, as stopping the QB runs is almost as important as the RB’s. Ronaldo McClain especially, both in coverage as well as a spy LB on Newton could be a big key to the game.
Josh Norman vs Dez
Do I really have to explain this one ? it’s two of the NFL’s best at their positions going against each other. Who wins this battle could give their team a big advantage.